As BKS Iyengar writes: ‘To climb the ladder of spiritual wisdom, the ethical and mental disciplines are essential.’ We can’t really practice yoga without developing our meditation practice, too.
Previously, we looked at ‘upgrading’ your yoga practice, and thinking about ways in which to commit more deeply to a yogic lifestyle. Now, let’s explore some of those suggestions in more depth, starting with meditation, the seventh of the Eight Limbs, as this is something many of us are unsure about where to begin or if we are doing it ‘right’!
My journey towards understanding the benefits of a regular meditation practice has been a long one. With a background in martial arts, my physical training has been tough and based on endurance, and my approach to yoga was to seize on a vigorous form like vinyasa flow and use it to run myself into the ground. It took years to realise I could practise in a way that could help to calm my mind and repair my body after hard sparring classes, and even longer to be able to just sit still and learn to focus on my breath in meditation.
In all honesty, learning about meditation was the aspect of my yoga teacher training I dreaded, as the thought of sitting in silence with strangers made me feel very uncomfortable. Head stand? No problem! Sitting still for a prolonged period of time? Torture! However, the intensity of the teacher training soon had me looking forward to those quiet, static periods of inward focus when I could regroup, and I became so relaxed at one point that I tipped forward and fell asleep in front of my teacher… Not the desired result, but at least I knew my tension around meditation had finally gone away and I felt more able to cope with the demands of my training.
Here are my tips for easing yourself into a meditative practice:
Start small & keep it simple
It really is enough to start with ten minutes a day. Meditating first thing can establish a calm attitude, or sitting when we get home from work can draw a line under a hectic day and prepare us for a relaxed evening. Free meditation timers can be downloaded for smartphones, offering chimes that rouse us more gently from relaxation than a regular alarm and also allow us to log our practice, if that is motivational.
Find a comfortable place with minimal distractions and sit comfortably in a cross-legged position, on the heels or on a bolster or cushion, whatever suits. Sitting in lotus position is entirely optional! Sit up tall, lifting out of the lower back as in a regular yoga pose, relax the shoulders and close the eyes. Traditionally, this opening of the spine allows energy from the root or muladhara chakra (where we are in contact with the ground) to move freely up the length of the spine (in yoga we refer to the spine as sushumna nadi, the main energy channel in the ‘subtle body’) and move us closer to an enlightened state when it reaches the sahasrara chakra in the crown the head. It’s fine to lean against something to support the back as long as we maintain good posture and keep the back straight. Hands can take a mudra, where fingers are in contact to channel certain energies, or can just rest comfortably in the lap. We are more likely to relax if we don’t feel that we are straining to maintain any particular position.
Find a focus
The easiest option is a guided meditation, if this is all new, or if we are tired and find it hard to concentrate. Leading our own meditation, however, is a useful technique to have, and there are a variety of ways in which to do this. We can start by simply focusing on the breath and counting each exhalation until we get to 10 and start again. Keep coming back to the count if thoughts wander (and they will!). We can focus on an object and start to consider it in detail, such as a precious stone or flower. There is trataka or candle gazing, too, watching a flame (preferably not in a draughty room as you are aspiring to stillness) and relaxing your eye muscles.
Meditation is also where mantras come in. There are plenty in Sanskrit to try – for example, sat nam, ‘truth is my name’ – but if this feels unnatural then do choose one in English. I like to repeat ‘I welcome abundance’ on my inhale and ‘I will be generous’ when I am inviting success, or sometimes just, ‘ I am calm, I am peaceful’ when I need to soften and feel grounded.
Just as with our asana practice, it is important not to attach to the outcome of meditation. It is unreasonable to expect our busy minds to suddenly empty, and our thoughts will come and go throughout the time we sit. The way that meditation was explained to me was to visualise ourselves sitting at the side of a road with the traffic flowing past. The objective is to watch the cars and not be tempted to jump into one and let it drive us away. When it does, we climb out as soon as we realise we are on the move and come back to the roadside. We are meditating the whole time we remember to come back to the side of that road and to our breath.
Remind ourselves of the benefits
When we are tempted to skip our yoga practice, it is often the reminder of how good we will feel afterwards that keeps us rolling out the mat. The same is true of meditation. While there is plenty of anecdotal evidence for stress relief and reduction in anxiety levels through meditation, science is now catching up with evidenced clinical benefits; major universities such as Harvard and Stanford in the USA are producing findings pointing to structural changes in the brain and greater emotional control after a prolonged period of regular practice.
So, take a comfortable seat, set that timer and prepare to add the benefits of meditation to your yoga practice!
>> GIVE IT A TRY WITH OUR MEDITATION VIDEOS >>
This post was written by Tracy Johnson, the founder of Brainbox Coaching and Empower Yoga Bristol. She trained under Sally Parkes and is a 200 hour RYT with Yoga Alliance. Tracy blends her yoga teaching with confidence coaching and stress management to create a holistic practice, and runs her classes with warmth and humour. She is the author of a careers guide, Working in Science, co-author of The Coaching Gurus, and writes for publications such as OM Yoga Magazine, Globe of Love, Happiness+Wellbeing, MindBodyGreen and has been featured in the Guardian, Body Fit magazine, the Bristol Post and Cardiff Life. She is also a career and confidence coach, self-defence instructor and an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and is currently writing a book combining yoga with her coaching techniques for stress management. Follow Tracy on Twitter.